As an Irish Nationalist who supports the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement as the basis of permanent peace in Ireland, I fear that that Agreement is now profoundly threatened by the Northern Ireland Protocol attached to Britain’s Withdrawal Agreement with the EU.
The Northern Ireland Protocol is a legacy of the efforts of Prime Minister Theresa May and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar between 2017 and 2019, encouraged by Michel Barnier and the Brussels Commission, to use the Irish Border as a device to keep the whole of the UK in the EU single market – thereby frustrating any meaningful Brexit.
When the UK voted for Brexit in 2016, the then Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny initiated a study of trusted trader schemes and modern surveillance technology so as to maintain an invisible trading border between North and South in Ireland, which is perfectly feasible. When his Fine Gael colleague Leo Varadkar succeeded Enda Kenny as Taoiseach, he cancelled all such studies/preparations. Instead, Taoiseach Varadkar waved a newspaper photograph at his EU Council of Ministers colleagues showing the results of an IRA bomb at a Newry customs post during the “Troubles” period, to make the case that a possible renewal of IRA violence necessitated a sea-border instead between Britain and Northern Ireland – without consideration for the views of Northern Ireland’s Unionists.
As Unionist leader David Trimble, who helped negotiate the Good Friday Agreement along with the late John Hume, wrote recently in the “Irish Times”: “The Protocol lists 70 pages of EU laws to which Northern Ireland must adhere. This amounts to tens of thousands of separate regulations. In addition, all future EU laws, which no one in the UK or Northern Ireland is able even to discuss – let alone vote on – will apply to Northern Ireland. Moreover, they will be enforceable by the European Court of Justice. This amounts to a seismic and undemocratic change in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland and runs contrary to the most fundamental premise in the Belfast Agreement.”
This premise requires the consent of BOTH Northern Ireland communities for constitutional change. The Protocol is therefore a clear contravention of both text and spirit of the Agreement. Moreover, as the volume of East-West trade across the Irish Sea is some five times that of North-South trade across the Irish land border, it is absurd to impose intrusive controls on the former when it is perfectly possible to have unobtrusive ones on the latter.
The most rational solution to the NI Protocol problem is a new UK law to guarantee that goods carried across the North-South Irish land border would continue to comply with EU requirements, so that the need to inspect them as they crossed would be no greater than it was when the UK was an EU member. That is to say, there would still be no need to intercept and inspect them on the actual border itself. The Republic of Ireland should give a similar guarantee that its goods exports to the UK would abide by UK law. Such mutual enforcement of law in each jurisdiction would avoid EU law being imposed on ALL goods producers in Northern Ireland, regardless of whether they export their goods or not. It would avoid any visible hard border between North and South of Ireland, while also avoiding any border down the Irish Sea, and would pose no threat to the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement.
The trading border between the two jurisdictions in Ireland needs to be where the political, constitutional and currency border is, and that is perfectly achievable with goodwill on the EU and UK sides without causing significant problems. Under this proposal the North-South Irish border would remain invisible, just as it is today.
Current calls by some Irish Nationalists for a Border poll and a date to be set for that are divisive and provocative to Unionists. The armed violence of the 1970-1996 period has left the two Northern communities more divided than ever before. If the Republic seeks to remain in the EU while the UK leaves, it only serves to add a further dimension to Partition. It is unrealistic of Irish Nationalists to expect any significant body of Northern Unionists – at whatever distant point in the future – to embrace unity with an Irish Republic that is a member of the EU and uses the euro currency.
It is unrealistic also to imagine that it can ever be in the security interest of Britain to have either a United Ireland or a Scottish State inside a Federalised EU that is dominated by Germany and France, countries that historically have been Britain’s continental enemies.
This is even more obviously the case when the post-Brexit EU is now openly planning to establish its own army. Irish Nationalism from the days of Eamon De Valera onward has always held that a United Ireland would never be a security threat to Britain. Yet a United Ireland inside a Federalised EU that had its own military forces would undoubtedly be that.
The current Sinn Fein Party leadership’s call for a reunified Ireland inside the EU, just like the Scottish National Party’s slogan of “independence in Europe”, poses questions as to the character of their nationalism. If these parties stood for genuine national independence, they would be aiming to establish their own national currencies, make all their own laws and institute their own unique national citizenships, rather than opting for a subordinate second-class citizenship in a dual-citizenship Federal EU – as under the EU’s 2009 Lisbon Treaty would be the corollary of a political existence outside the UK.
Leaving the British Union to become a Member State of the European Union is not independence at all, but rather a shift from a political union of four national elements to one of 27 or 28 EU States, entailing a dramatic reduction in such political influence as the people of Northern Ireland and Scotland currently have, and such democracy as they can now exercise. Thinking Irish Nationalists should therefore be advocating an Irexit to follow Brexit as a way of helping to accommodate the “Britishness” of Northern Unionists, at however distant future date, while in the meanwhile they should be supporting Unionist calls to oppose the Northern Ireland Protocol because of the manifest threat that it poses to the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement.
Anthony Coughlan is Associate Professor Emeritus in Social Policy, Trinity College Dublin; he is also Spokesman for the National Platform EU Research and Information Centre, Ireland.